Transforming Worship: Encountering God in Ways that Change Us
“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to another.” II Corinthians 3:18
From our earliest days in the Transforming Center one of the basic, non-negotiable elements of our shared practice has been fixed-hour prayer and worship.
The first time those of us who would eventually form the Transforming Center gathered on retreat, we began with an evening prayer service. We had prepared a space for prayer with a cross, a candle, and an open Bible placed on a simple altar. We entered that space quietly and lit the candle to signify Christ’s presence with us through the Holy Spirit. Then, guided by a simple liturgy, we prayed the prayers provided for us, beginning with these words:
From the rising of the sun to its setting,
Let the name of the Lord be praised.
YOU, O LORD, ARE MY LAMP.
MY GOD, YOU MAKE MY DARKNESS BRIGHT.
Light and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.
THANKS BE TO GOD.
We read a Psalm responsively followed by a Psalm prayer that gave us a way to affirm and enter into its message. There was a Gospel reading followed by silence to create space for God to speak to us personally through the chosen Scripture. We prayed some of the oldest prayers of the Church—including the Lord’s Prayer, the canticle of Zachary, The Book of Common Prayer, along with written prayers of intercession that helped us offer our shared concerns to God. Some of the prayers were prayed responsively, others in unison; we also created space for personal prayers of intercession.
I remember losing myself in the beauty and simplicity of it all. Instead of having to think really, really hard about what to pray, we gave ourselves to the beauty of words that expressed deep longings and powerful praises that were true in me but I could never have found the words to say. Instead of getting caught up in the ego’s attempts to say something profound to God (and to the people around me!), we actually rested from all of that and actually prayed. Instead of listening to someone else’s interpretation or application of Scripture, the Gospel was read without comment so that we could actually listen for what God was saying personally to us.
Rather than being “led” by an overly enthusiastic worship band, there was a sense that we all participated and did it together. Relieved of the need for a lot of fanfare, this small group of us settled into a silence that was so rich and satisfying that I lost all track of time until someone finally nudged me to remind me that it was time to go on!
Beyond the Beginning
That simple service must have lasted all of twenty minutes and yet we emerged from our sacred space awake and alert to God in the depths of our beings having given him our whole worship inasmuch as we were able. I felt like my soul had finally come home to a way of praying and worshipping that created more space for God and more space for my own soul to say what it needed to say to God.
That first fixed-hour prayer service took place over twelve years ago now and we have been praying and worshipping that way ever since—with one notable difference. Several years into the life and ministry of the Transforming Center, Rory Noland joined our second Transforming Community®. In a previous life, some of us had been on a church staff with Rory so we knew him to be an amazing worship leader, musician and composer. We were disciplined enough not to ask him to serve with these gifts until he had completed his own community experience for his own soul’s sake. BUT as soon as it was over, we asked him if he would serve as our worship leader. Specifically we wondered if he had any vision at all to add musical elements to our fixed-hour prayer and worship—elements that would be original and unique to the style of worship we were living into.
To our delight, he had already been thinking about this possibility and said yes, bringing great joy to us all. What has ensued over the last ten years is a wonderful partnership in which we have been able to work together in continuing to develop what we now call Transforming Worship™—a unique style of worship that has emerged from our life together in community.
What is Transforming Worship?
For us, transforming worship is highly participatory. We embrace a liturgical style that is not focused on the up-front presence and performance of a few, but rather gives everyone a chance to read and respond to Scriptures, pray and be formed by the prayers of the church, listen to God in the silent spaces, and join their voices with others in songs that are simple and yet substantive. The term “liturgy” literally means “the work of the people” and we experience transforming worship to be “work” that satisfies and delights us.
Transforming worship is highly experiential, designed to lead folks into encounters with God that produce some sort of inner shift or change as they respond to that Presence. These experiences will correspond to whatever time of day it is (morning, mid-day, evening, night) along with the themes of the retreat we are in the midst of. Our services are characterized by simplicity and always include times for silence created specifically so God can speak to us personally; in the silent spaces we can say what we need to say to God and listen for his response.
Transforming worship engages the whole person, so we incorporate icons, Christian ritual and symbol, art and beauty as a way of bringing all aspects of ourselves into relationship with God and opening us to life-transforming encounters with God. At the same time, we are careful to avoid being emotionally manipulative or melodramatic. Although such worship is quieter than some styles of worship and even wordless at times, it is nonetheless very real. It creates space for encounters with God that are truly life-changing.
It goes without saying (and yet it needs to be said) that, for us, transforming worship is Christ-centered. Our commitment to fixed-hour prayer and worship is one of the most specific and intentional ways we gather around the presence of Christ for the purpose of being transformed in Christ’s presence. In every service there are multiple ways we “offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice” in very concrete ways; stopping to pray and orient ourselves to God at fixed hours of the day has become a significant aspect of our spiritual worship day in and day out. (Romans 12:1)
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
These days our worship includes many of Rory’s original compositions plus several beloved hymns, Taize choruses and other experiential elements designed to open us to God’s transforming presence in and through the spiritual discipline of worship. All of Rory’s compositions have been written specifically for different key moments in our worship services and they are truly a gift from God to our community. For instance, “The Lord is in our Midst” was written for the moment in evening prayer when we have come out of extended silence and want to acknowledge God’s transforming presence with us.
“Speak, O God” (Listen to a sample) was written specifically to lead us into a lectio divina experience on the Engaging the Scriptures for Spiritual Transformation retreat. “Live What I Believe” was written to help us do more than just recite the Apostle’s Creed, but instead to think through and affirm how we might actually live it. “New Every Morning” leads us to acknowledge and affirm God’s love and mercy for us at the beginning of the new day.
There are many other original compositions—fourteen in all!—and those of us who have been led in worship through Rory’s music have been greatly blessed by them. Over the next few months, you will be hearing more about Transforming Worship and how we hope to make more teaching and experiences available for a wider audience. Our first step has been to produce a cd that contains fourteen original songs Rory has composed in the context of our community life.
One of the most unexpected joys for me personally in the ministry of the Transforming Center has been the opportunity to partner with Rory in developing transforming worship experiences. It is an even greater joy to invite you to experience this music through the offering of this cd. May it be one more tool to help us experience the Lord in our midst, drawing our hearts out in worship to him.
©Ruth Haley Barton. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission.